McGrane: Football Positioned to Take Next Step in ‘15
Sept. 4, 2015
Past Mick McGrane 2014-15 football features
McGrane: Aztecs Positioned to Take Next Step in '15
By Mick McGrane, @GoAztecs Senior Writer (@MickOnTheMesa)
San Diego State cornerbacks coach Tony White was a freshman at UCLA in 1997 when the Bruins began work on atoning for a 5-6 campaign that marked their fourth losing season in eight years.
While the opening two acts of the new season gave reason for encouragement --- a 34-27 loss to Washington State and 30-24 loss to No. 3 Tennessee --- they were still a reminder that success was becoming increasingly elusive for a program that had two losing seasons in the 1970s and one in the 1980s.
Then came Texas…and there went losing.
In putting the brakes on a skid that had had seen it lose six of its previous nine games, UCLA --- along with White and a defensive coordinator named Rocky Long --- demolished the host Longhorns 66-3.
It was Sept. 13, 1997. The Bruins would not lose again until Dec. 5, 1998, a streak spanning 20 games.
“As a player, you start to look around the locker room and think, hey, we can do this,” said White, who is in his seventh season at SDSU and also serves as the Aztecs’ recruiting coordinator. “It’s like wildfire. You begin to believe that there is truly no way you can lose. Those are the things that really matter when you start talking about championships.”
So is this: For the first time in the 17-year history of the Mountain West --- although the league has been split into two divisions since 2013 --- SDSU has been picked to win a championship. Forecast to win the league’s West Division by members of the media who cover the conference, the Aztecs also have received backing from ESPN College Football Preview, Sporting News, Athlon Sports and Lindy’s Sports. SDSU garnered 27 of 30 first-place votes in the West Division from MW media after earning a total of just 22 first-place votes since the league’s inception in 1999.
Such is the bounty when you return eight starters on a defense that finished No. 16 in the nation last year. Such is the optimism when your offense features a running back (Donnel Pumphrey) whose 143.6 yards per game last season ranked fourth in the country. Such is the confidence in Long, who has guided the Aztecs to four bowl games in his first four seasons while enlisting sage assistants who couldn’t care if Boise’s blue turf was lavender and lined in gunmetal gray.
In addition to a staff that already includes three position coaches who served him at New Mexico, Long during the offseason added special teams coach Bobby Hauck, formerly the head coach at UNLV; quarterbacks coach Blaine Morgan, the former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Air Force; and wide receivers coach Hunkie Cooper, who coached Pumphrey in high school and has long been considered one of the most respected mentors of youth in the Las Vegas area.
It’s a staff that has done a lap or two around the MW, and one that recognizes the promise of a program no longer wandering in a wasteland of woe.
“It all starts with Coach Long,” said White, who began working with Long during the latter’s final year as head coach at New Mexico in 2008. “There isn’t anyone in this program who doesn’t know that he’s going to say it as he sees it, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever been around him that he has publically acknowledged how good this team can be. He’s upgraded this program over the last four years by developing not only some very special players, but also the depth that you need to be a contender every year.
“Every team in America right now thinks it’s going to win, but we really do feel that there are some key pieces to the puzzle that are here now. We’ve improved at the quarterback spot with the competition between (Maxwell Smith and Christian Chapman). You have a running back (Pumphrey) who is a very special player, but you also have a lot of depth behind him. We have players on defense who have played a lot of football. We’ve had a lot of pieces to the puzzle fall into place.”
The Aztecs, who open the season on Saturday against USD, have won just two league championships in the past 15 years. The first came as members of the Western Athletic Conference under Ted Tollner in 1998 before Long reprised the effort in 2012. In each instance, SDSU was forced to settle for a share of the crown. The Aztecs haven’t won an outright title in football since capturing the WAC in 1986 and dropping a 39-38 shootout to No. 16 Iowa in the Holiday Bowl.
And while SDSU would endure 17 non-winning seasons over the course of the next 23 years, it has suffered nary a one since 2009.
“It’s a building process,” said safeties coach Danny Gonzales, who is in his fifth season with the Aztecs after serving under Long at New Mexico in some capacity from 1999-2008. “If you look at what we’ve done here, we’ve changed the culture of the program. We’re a tough, physical football team now. We want to be the toughest team that takes the field. And that’s what our kids believe now.”
Hauck joined the Aztecs in January after five seasons at UNLV (2010-14), where he became the first head coach to lead the Rebels to a winning season and a bowl game since 2000. He also was one of only three head coaches (the others being John Robinson and Aztecs associate head coach/offensive coordinator Jeff Horton) to lead UNLV to a bowl game in the last 30 years.
“From the outside, I thought this was a well-run program with very good personnel, and from the inside that hasn’t changed,” said Hauck, who prior to being named head coach at UNLV was 80-17 in seven seasons at Montana, advancing to the FCS playoffs every year. “Coach Long has been at this for a long time. He has a very good sense of how to bring teams along and what needs to be done. He knows how hard to push and he knows when to back off.
“Obviously, we want to win every game we play, and if we get on a roll, all the better. If we don’t, we’ll regroup. But being a part of this is very exciting for me, because I think we have a chance to be a good football team. I don’t think there’s a coach on this staff who doesn’t feel we have a ways to go before we get to where we want to be, but the potential to be a good football team is certainly there.”
Where bowl bids once seemed as realistic as scaling Everest in roller skates, SDSU has now played in five straight postseason games, equaling its total from the previous 43 seasons (1967-2009). The Aztecs are one of only 27 FBS teams to play in a bowl game each of the last five years.
Yet there’s another step to take, a steep step, a step to the national stage, a step SDSU missed last year and was left to rue when it fell short of reaching the MW title game. The toughest part? League champion Boise State, a team the Aztecs led 20-0 on the road before surrendering 28 points in the second half, was ultimately awarded a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, where it bounced No. 16 Arizona.
“I think we’ve gotten better each year, but now you hope you’re at that point where you step forward another notch, and we should be able to do that,” Horton said. “But we’ve got to be able to finish. We’ve got to be able to win those close games that come down to two or three plays. We’ve got to be able to make those plays, and as coaches we need to put our players in position to make them.
“There is a belief in this program. This is Coach (Long’s) fifth year, and I know our players believe in him and the things he exemplifies; they’ve bought in all the way. These are our guys now. These are the players that we brought in. Hopefully, that pays dividends at the end of the year. When people (pick you to win the division), I think it shows a lot of respect in terms of what you’ve been able to get done on the field, but that’s only what people think. You still have to be able to do.”
Tony White was on a team that did it. Did it once and didn’t stop until 20 straight wins were in the rearview mirror.
“Now it’s just a matter of being looked at favorably by the football gods,” White said. “You need to have a few bounces go your way, you need a Iittle luck and you need to stay healthy. If we can do that, we’ve got a shot to win it all.”